Book design is not ebook design

I’ve learned quite a bit about graphic design, especially book design, over the past couple decades—just enough to be dangerous, I suppose, but certainly enough to do a workmanlike job on Viral Learning, at least. My do-it-yourself design certainly wouldn’t win any design awards, but it’s good enough to keep it from irritating me every time I try to read any of it. Given how picky I am about text looking decent, that’s no small thing.

So it was quite a surprise a few months back when I decided to create epub and Kindle versions of the book to discover just how different ebooks are from printed books. (For the conversion, I used a nifty little program called calibre, which comes in flavors for OS X, Linux, and Windows.) With printed books, everything’s all about the typefaces and the space on the page: What does a two-page spread look like? Is the body text easy to read? Do the margins give the reader a comfortable line width to track? Are paragraph widows and orphans fixed? How does the display text (chapter titles, subtitles, running heads, etc.) blend with the body text? How well does the whole allow the reader to focus on the content? (Rather like a fencing referee, actually—the best design and the best referees, are unnoticed by readers and fencers.)

Epub and other ebook formats, though, are all about flowing the text. When you don’t know what device the reader will be using, you can’t think about the text the same way you do for print. She could be reading on an iPhone or other smartphone with a relatively small screen, on a dedicated reader with a screen sized more like a typical printed page, or even on a computer screen. She could also change the font style and size, and even the justification (I always opt for ragged right myself, when I have the option). Any attempt at page-level design under those conditions would be worse than useless.

Ebooks make the text more liquid—it takes on the shape of its container. Ebook design becomes a matter of deciding how to handle notes or whether to create a live table of contents. This will probably change somewhat (eventually) with the advent of devices like the iPad as both readers and designers learn what can be done with the new technology. But we’re probably in for a few years of startlingly ugly attempts to make ebooks a little fancier in the meantime, just like the early years of dot-matrix printers while we all learned that ransom-note fonts were Not. A. Good. Idea.